The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘and the Broiling Eyeball Burst’

Illustration from Schwab, Gustav: “Sagen des K...

Polyphemus, getting his drunk on.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 3: The wild, uncultivated land of the “high and mighty Cyclops.” Who: This is where things get good. Cyclopses are giant, one-eyed “lawless brutes.” What: Odysseus and his men barge into the high mountain cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops son of Poseidon himself; gruesome high jinks ensue.

Our heroes are expecting to cheerfully greet Mr. Polyphemus and enjoy his hospitality, according to the Greek tradition of xenia. Polyphemus arrives presently, “a man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world,” but is apparently unaware of, or unconcerned about, Greek customs. He answers Odysseus’ obsequious request for a guest-gift by grabbing two men: “Rapping them on the ground, he knocked them dead like pups.” Brains gush everywhere; all of a sudden, Odysseus is in a Tarantino movie.

Polyphemus ends up eating four more men before Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, can contrive a theatrical ruse for getting away.

  • Step 1, Get the giant drunk. Sleep “overwhelmed him now, as wine came spurting, flooding up from his gullet with chunks of human flesh — he vomited, blind drunk.”
  • Step 2, Use the giant’s own walking stick to gouge out his only eye. “So we seized our stake with its fiery tip, and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye.”
  • Step 3, Convince the now-howling simpleton your name is Nobody, so when he cries for help, he sounds like an idiot. “Nobody’s killing me now!”
  • Step 4, Elude the whimpering, blinded beast by hiding among his sheep. “The idiot never sensed my men were trussed up under their thick fleecy ribs.”
  • …Oh, wait. There’s a Step 5? Yeah. Brag about it like a jerk just as your ship is about to get away. “So I called back to the Cyclops, stinging taunts…”

This is perhaps the most gruesome, and entertaining, part of the first half the book. Where else can you get passages like this? “…And the broiling eyeball burst — its crackling roots blazed and hissed.” It also is a timely demonstration of Odysseus’ arrogance, lest we forget who is to blame for the debacle on Ismarus.

Angered by the taunts, Polyphemus nearly swamps Odysseus’ little fleet by chucking part of the mountain at him. But our hero keeps jawing, even as his men plead, “Why rile the beast again?” Polyphemus gets the last word, though; he tattles on our heroes to his father, Poseidon, setting in motion the divine forces that conspire to keep Odysseus away from home.

Talking point: Odysseus is a dick. Death toll: 6.

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